Monday, December 31, 2012

Best of 2012 - and a Sneak Peek at 2013!

Well kiddies, it's time to say goodbye to the year 2012, if you can believe it. I can't quite, mostly because I don't really know what I spent the past 12 months doing -- oh yeah, that's right, it was pretty much nose-in-book, fingers-on-keyboard this year (and not just for the blog, dear ones).

So I thought it would be fun to have a little look at the books especially enjoyed in 2012. Not all of these are 2012 published titles, but all are ones we read and loved this past year. The lists are in no particular order, since I can't begin to rank some of these titles that finely. To keep it interesting, I asked Hubs and Sprout to include their favorites here too -- it's not all about my opinion, you see. And let's jump in!

Top 5 Books to Read at Bedtime (Mommy's version):
1. All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon
2. A House in the Woods by Inga Moore
3. Nightsong by Ari Berk
4. Lala Salama by Patricia Maclachlan
5. What Happens on Wednesdays by Emily Jenkins

Top 5 Books to Read at Bedtime: (Daddy's version):
1. Goldlilocks and the Three Dinosaurs by Mo Willems
2. Today I Will Fly! by Mo Willems
3. Shopping with Dad by Matt Harvey
4. Circle Dogs by Kevin Henkes
5. The Gingerbread Man Loose in the School by Laura Murray

Top 5 Books to Hear at Bedtime (Sprout's version):
1. Tiny Little Fly by Michael Rosen
2. Creepy Carrots by Aaron Reynolds
3. Nighttime Ninja by Barbara DaCosta
4. Black Dog by Levi Pinfold
5. Bear Snores On by Karma Wilson

Top 5 Books About Vehicles:
1. Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site by Tom Lichtenheld
2. Otis and the Tornado by Loren Long
3. Machines Go to Work in the City by William Low
4. A Bus Called Heaven by Bob Graham
5. I'm Fast by Kate McMullan

Top 5 Books with Rhythm:
1. Drum City by Thea Guidone
2. Squeak, Rumble, Whomp! Whomp! Whomp! by Wynton Marsalis (review coming soon!)
3. Sing-Along Song by Joann Early Macken
4. Penny and Her Song by Kevin Henkes
5. Listen to My Trumpet by Mo Willems

Top 5 Books about Friends:
1. Boy + Bot by Ame Dyckman
2. City Dog, Country Frog by Mo Willems
3. Bear in Love by Daniel Pinkwater
4. Duck, Duck, Goose by Tad Hills
5. A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead

Top 5 Delicious Reads:
1. Cora Cooks Pancit by Dorina K. Lazo Gilmore
2. Minette's Feast by Susanna Reich
3. Bring Me Some Apples and I'll Make You a Pie by Robbin Gourley
4. Rah, Rah, Radishes! by April Pulley Sayre
4. Bee-Bim Bop! by Linda Sue Park

Top 5 Books to Make You Laugh:
1. It's a Tiger by David LaRochelle
2. This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen
3. Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin
4. Betty Bunny Loves Chocolate Cake by Michael Kaplan
5. Z is for Moose by Kelly Bingham

and, here are my personal lists --

Top 5 Middle Grade Reads:
1. Wonder by RJ Palacio
2. The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
3. How Lamar's Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy by Crystal Allen
4. Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead
5. A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

Top 5 Teen Reads:
1. Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai
2. How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr
3. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie
4. Grave Mercy by Robin L. Lafevers
5. The Summer I Learned to Fly by Dana Reinhardt

Top Books I Never Blogged About (But Which are Totally Fantastic Anyway):
1. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
2. The Diviners by Libba Bray
3. The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
4. See You at Harry's by Jo Knowles
5. The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann
6. The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats
7. Delirium by Lauren Oliver
8. Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katharine Boo
9. October Mourning by Leslea Newman
10. Drama by Raina Telgemeier

Top 5 Books My Husband Loved:
1. Silverfin by Charlie Higson
2. The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan
3. Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
4. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
5. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (he has awesome taste - I loved this one too)

Now, no fair blaming us if your TBR lists just grew by a mile, OK?

And onto the sneak peek of 2013. This is going to be a big year for me personally, professionally, and bloggily (maybe the biggest I've had since 2010 when I became a mom and started graduate school, in that order). I don't really want to talk about the first two areas of my life, but I will give you a little look-see at what's happening here on the Bookshelf:

~ The Children's Bookshelf: Coming Soon -- I am one of the new cohosts of this weekly kidlit link-up, and I'm SO EXCITED! Come here every Monday to see a host of fantastic links from all over the blogosphere, all related to children's books. It's going to be really terrific!

~ More Nonfiction Reviews: that was my goal in 2012 and it just didn't happen. In 2013, I hope to dive into the true stuff in a bigger way. Stay tuned.

~ More Middle Grade/Teen Reviews: I really fell down on this in 2012, but not for lack of reading some amazing books. This next year I want to balance out all the terrific picture books we read with Sprout with all the other goodies that make their way home in my library bag.

~ A New Look: Working now on some design changes that I hope to have in place very very soon. And of course, you'll be the first to know.

Personally, we want to thank you for reading along with us in 2012. If you've shared our little blog with others, we thank you for that as well -- and here's to 2013, a year of books, books, and even more fabulous books!!

Friday, December 28, 2012

Picture Book Review - Lester's Dreadful Sweaters by K. G. Campbell

Merry Week After Christmas! We hope your holidays were as wonderful as ours were -- good food, good friends, family time and even some great gifts under the tree. Oh yes, we know that holidays aren't just about material stuff, but let's be honest here: we're all five year-olds again when it comes to Christmas morning, aren't we?

And since we're being honest, let's talk about those not-so-great gifts. We've all gotten them, especially as kids. The mysteriously squishy package is really a creepy clown doll or the big box in the corner contains a bulky winter coat (or a pink bunny outfit). And so you're forced to smile politely, thank Aunt Whosiewhatsit, and try to figure out what you're going to do with said hideous present. Yikes.

This is precisely the problem our hero faces in K.G. Campbell's terrific picture book Lester's Dreadful Sweaters. Lester has some big trouble on his hands when Cousin Clara moves in after her home is mysteriously eaten (yes, I said eaten). The grateful relative immediately begins knitting sweaters for Lester -- and ooooh boy, are these sweaters hideous. Words can't describe, which is why Campbell's hilarious illustrations come in so very handy to show us each of these creations. There's one that is "less-than-pleasant yellow. . . smothered with purple pom-poms." There's the "repulsively pumpkin" creation, and another with "several unexpected sleeves". Each of these pieces is more vile than the last, and no matter how creative Lester is with finding ways to (cough, cough) recycle these beauties, Cousin Clara whips another one out just as fast. It's enough to drive a fastidious guy like Lester absolutely loony.

Lester's Dreadful Sweaters isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea, but those who like Jon Klassen or Mac Barnett (or better yet, Edward Gorey) are likely to love Lester too. Campbell's got plenty of lovely big vocabulary words woven throughout, and there's no attempt to water them down for a young audience, which I personally find just perfect. The humor here works on several levels, as kids will like the zaniness of Clara's knitwear while adults will identify with Lester's predicament (and with the touch of darkness that runs throughout). I really appreciated the resolution too -- where even Cousin Clara's dubious talents are given a place to shine.

My favorite thing about this book is the cover illustration, repeated inside, where Lester's family gets a load of the little yellow-and-purple number. Sprout likes the dog's reaction, all quizzical ears and bewilderment. I like his parents' reaction: mom's all nervous teeth and smile, while dad's gee-whiz whistle spells trouble for a kid who's just hoping for a reprieve from some serious sweater-induced depression.

If you got a few gifts this holiday that missed the mark by a bit (or a mile), this book is the sure cure. And just remember, even something as dreadful as a sweater from Cousin Clara has a place in this world -- so regifting isn't impossible!

Lester's Dreadful Sweaters by K.G. Campbell, published by Kids Can Press
Ages 4-7
Source: Library
Sample: "Later, Lester's sweater was discovered in the yard, shredded by the lawn mower. / 'It's an inexplicable tragedy,' said Lester. / 'Never mind,' said Cousin Clara. / And still she knitted, clickety-click, clickety-click."

Monday, December 24, 2012

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - A Piñata in a Pine Tree by Pat Mora

It's Christmas Eve, which means we've reached the end of our 12 Days of Christmas Picture Books series with Day 12. Thank you for reading along with us thus far - we've had some wonderful selections this year that we have truly enjoyed sharing with all of you, dear readers.

Today's selection is one that we really love, and that reminds us of how much more wonderful the holiday can be when we embrace the flavor of many cultures. Christmas is a global holiday, after all, and it is recognized in different ways in different places. Our celebrations can be made even more festive when we incorporate some elements from around the world, strengthening our connections as people and reinforcing global citizenship to our children.

Our book for today is Pat Mora's A Piñata in a Pine Tree. This bilingual title represents a blending of traditions into a selection that is vibrant and unique. Mora has taken the familiar carol "Twelve Days of Christmas" and updated it by adding Latino/a elements that the author remembers from her own holiday celebrations. Instead of all those birds, for instance, the adorable little girl singing the song receives luminarias, guitarritas, and on the final day, doce angelitos celebrando. Each day's gifts are depicted on its own spread, and a glossary at the end of the book defines the terms for non-Spanish speakers.

Sprout loves the colors of this one, and the charming illustrations by Magaly Morales that nearly spring off the page. (Magaly is the sister of Yuyi Morales, another of our favorite illustrators.) The pictures are energetic and joyful, a can't-miss addition to any Christmas bookshelf. If you're looking for a way to update the Twelve Days for modern kids, this is a terrific selection - Mora's lyrics fit perfectly with the melody and there's a great twist at the end. You might just find your kiddos singing along with entirely new words next year.

To all our readers -- thank you for following along with our series. We wish you a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

A Piñata in a Pine Tree by Pat Mora, published by Clarion Books
All ages
Source: Library
Sample: "On the fourth day of Christmas, my amiga gave to me cuatro luminarias, tre tamalitos, dos pastelitos, and a piñata in a pine tree."

Sunday, December 23, 2012

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - Uncle Vova's Tree by Patricia Polacco

It's Day 11 of our 12 Days of Christmas Picture Books series. Today's choice is a bittersweet one, probably because this time of year is both joyous and sad. We think of Christmases that went before, loved ones who aren't with us any longer, and we keep traditions that help bring these past years alive once again. It's one of the things I love most about the holidays, reminiscing with family and friends and bringing the past into the present (and presents).

I've been waiting quite a while to introduce Sprout to Patricia Polacco, the author of today's pick, Uncle Vova's Tree. Polacco's books are amazing but tend to be a bit long, better for an older preschooler than for a toddler. Her art is very folk-inspired, with a lot of color and small details that make her books just as pleasing to the eye as to the ear. And she's done a number of Christmas titles, but this is one of my favorites because of its themes of family and heritage.

In Uncle Vova's Tree, young children recall the visits to see their Uncle Vova and Aunt Svetlana at the holiays, and all the traditions the family observed that connected them to their Russian roots. There were the special foods, with all the aunts preparing the variation that was popular in their home region. There were the paper stars and the sleigh rides. And there was Uncle Vova's tree, planted in the yard when they came from Russia, which the family decorated every year with berries, grain and popcorn for the birds and wild animals in appreciation and gratitude. This was one of the children's favorite parts of Christmas with Uncle Vova. He told them always to follow the tradition, even if he wasn't there -- and the very next year, they did, in remembrance of their beloved Uncle.

This sentimental classic is one of Polacco's best, and will resonate most particularly with those who have missing spaces at the Christmas table. At the end of this lovely story, the animals and birds come on their own to decorate Uncle Vova's tree, in an emotional moment that virtually guarantees no dry eyes among the adults reading the story. For a holiday tale that reinforces the importance of family and tradition, Uncle Vova's Tree hits all the right notes.

Uncle Vova's Tree by Patricia Polacco, published by Penguin Group
Ages 4-8
Source: Library
Sample: "Uncle Vova clicked and gently tugged the reins, and the sleigh swooshed smoothly down the hill.  Billows of steam came out of the horse's nostrils with a soft puffing sound, and his hooves made a muffled clip, clop, clop as they met the new snow."

Saturday, December 22, 2012

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - The Road to Bethlehem: An Ethiopian Nativity by Elizabeth Laird

It's Day 10 of our 12 Days of Christmas Picture Books series. Christmas excitement is at an all-time high around here, as we're feverishly counting down the last few days of our advent calendar and wondering when some presents are going to appear under the tree. Meanwhile, Santa and Mrs. Claus are trying to sneak in opportunities for gift-wrapping when our little elf is asleep - easier said than done as we no longer have the luxury of naptime for chores like these!

Today's pick is one for our fellow Ethiopian adoptive families. I ran across this book almost exactly a year ago, and have been excited to share it as part of this year's Christmas books countdown. For adoptive families looking for ways to keep their children connected to their heritage, understanding and appreciating the religious traditions in their child's birth country is essential. While there are several great children's books by and about Ethiopians, there aren't a whole lot that center around the Orthodox tradition in Ethiopia. It's a shame, really, because Ethiopia's connection with religious traditions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) are fundamental to its identity as a nation.

So on to today's book -- The Road to Bethlehem: An Ethiopian Nativity by Elizabeth Laird. This book is special because it really reveals the unique heritage of the Christian church in Ethiopia, both through its text and through its illustrations. Laird takes her inspiration from the text from ancient manuscripts, many of which are reproduced in the paintings in the book. She takes the long view of the nativity story, telling us of the Holy Family's origins as well as what happens after Jesus's birth. Those more familiar with Western Christianity may find some aspects of the story are related differently, but there are many similarities here as well. And the artwork -- it's soulful and stirring, full of the details and colors that make Ethiopian art distinct from other religious iconography.

This is a long title and one that will be best shared with older children. I can see older adoptees in particular finding a conection with this title, both through the stories Laird tells and through the art that is included. Adoptive families may consider tracking down a copy (it's out of print, sadly, but you can find used copies through some sources) and making it part of their annual Christmas tradition. It's a wonderful bridge between cultures that honors all parts of the Christmas story.

The Road to Bethlehem: An Ethiopian Nativity by Elizabeth Laird, published by Henry Holt
Ages 6-12, or read to the whole family
Source: Library
Sample: "Mary grew to be full of grace. She was of medium height, with a face the color of ripe wheat. Her eyes were brown and bright, and her eyebrows black and arched. Her face was oval and her nose was long. She spoke clearly and fearlessly, and was seldon angry. She was simple, and humble, she wore plain, homespun clothes, and she listened to people when they talked to her."

Friday, December 21, 2012

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - Grace at Christmas by Mary Hoffman

It's Day 9 of our 12 Days of Christmas Picture Books series. Today's choice, like yesterday's, is part of a series. I've written before about the benefits of series books -- they help readers be drawn deeper into the lives of characters, they can be a powerful draw for reluctant readers who want to know more, and they satisfy young children's love for repetition (while providing parents another option rather than rereading the same book every night!). It can be especially hard to find series featuring characters of color, which is why I try to highlight good examples when they come up (see our Pinterest board for some we especially like).

Mary Hoffman's series begins with Amazing Grace, which has been recognized on a number of "best of" lists and has real staying power since it's still popular more than 20 years after its publication. Since then Hoffman has published a number of books in the series, including today's pick, Grace at Christmas. All are beautifully illustrated by husband-and-wife team Corneilus Van Wright & Ying-Hwa Hu, who capture Grace's humor and spirit in their snapshots of her world. I love that this is not only a multicultural series in terms of characters, but also in terms of contributors!

In this outing, our vivacious heroine is really looking forward to Christmas, and all the traditions that she has with her Ma and Nana. Unfortunately, though, Grace will have to share her holiday with Savannah, the granddaughter of her Nana's friend who isn't able to get home to Trinidad for Christmas. Grace is pretty put out by this, and she lets it be known -- but after reflecting on how much she misses her father, who is spending the holiday in Gambia with his new family, she decides maybe it's worth reaching out to Savannah after all. And in the process, Grace may just have the best Christmas ever (you'll have to read to see why).

Grace is an especially great character because she is *realistic*. In this volume, she's annoyed about sharing her Christmas, and Hoffman allows readers in on this, which makes Grace much more relatable. Instead of being some super-human who welcomes all strangers with an abundance of cheer, Grace learns that it's just as tough for Savannah, who feels like an outsider. And so the spirit of giving, which comes on Grace gradually, seems much more genuine to readers.

This title's a bit long, so best with older preschoolers and elementary ages. Kids who love drama and dress-up, like Grace does, will particularly enjoy this outing, and young ones who have family far away at the holidays will also find a lot to relate to. In Grace at Christmas, as with her other outings, Hoffman's Grace hits all the right notes.

Grace at Christmas by Mary Hoffman, published by Dial Books for Young Readers
Ages 4-8
Source: Library
Sample: "'We can't say "no room" at Christmastime, can we, Grace?' said Ma. / 'Christmas is a time for families,' said Nana. / Grace thought, But they aren't our family! I wish we had a stable for them. But she didn't say it."

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - How Do Dinosaurs Say Merry Christmas? by Jane Yolen

**Due to technical difficulties - this didn't publish last night. Which is OK, it just means you'll get 2 posts from us in 24 hours!**

It's Day 8 of our 12 Days of Christmas Picture Books series. Wow, where does the time go? Still so many awesome Christmas picture books we'd love to share. . . guess we'll get a jump on the project for next year! And remember, we'd love to hear what your favorite holiday reads are, whether they are for Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa. You can leave a comment here, track me down on Facebook or Twitter, or shoot me an email with your suggestions!

Today's pick is one of Sprout's new favorites: Jane Yolen's How Do Dinosaurs Say Merry Christmas?. Yolen has a whole series of these How Do Dinosaurs books, and we've of course brought several home from the library because Sprout is nuts for them. Each one is not only fun and spirited, but teaches us a few more dinosaur names. Sprout has fun poring over the end papers and noting which dinosaurs appear where in the pictures, done by illustrator Mark Teague (look for the name of each dinosaur cleverly woven into the spread on which its picture appears). And as with each of the books, there's a little bit of a lesson embedded, though it's done with such wit and charm that it'll sneak right up on the kiddos.

It's really hard to separate the pictures and the text in these titles, and Merry Christmas is no exception. Much of the humor comes from the antics of the dinosaurs, and the way their outsized shenangans are depicted in the setting of a modern-day home. In this title, there's a lot of tearing up presents, shaking Christmas trees, and the like, all of which are so ridiculously over-the-top that they make Sprout laugh like crazy. And I love that Teague includes a multicultural cast of characters in all of these titles - proof again that it doesn't have to be a book about racial issues or set in a foreign land to show a little diversity! Thank you Jane Yolen and Mark Teague for that kind of sensitivity and thought.

On Christmas morning it may feel like a gigantoraptor has been frolicking through your living room, but take heart - if even a dinosaur can learn to use manners and express gratitude, so can your little sprout!

How Do Dinosaurs Say Merry Christmas? by Jane Yolen, published by Blue Sky Press
All ages
Source: Library
Sample: "On Christmas Eve, does a dinosaur sleep? Does he go up to bed without making a peep? / Or does he sneak out, just to check what's to see? / Does he rip open presents set under the tree?"

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - Everett Anderson's Christmas Coming by Lucille Clifton

It's Day 7 of our 12 Days of Christmas Picture Books Series. If you've missed any of the titles so far, click the "12 Days of Christmas Picture Books" tab above, which will take you to titles from this year and last year as well -- or you can check out our Christmas Favorites board on Pinterest for the whole list plus some other great finds!

Today's title is unfortunately another book that's older and out of print. Honestly I didn't set out to bring you so many great but hard-to-find reads. But the nature of publishing is a transitory one, and sadly many excellent multicultural titles just don't stay in print that long. (Another reason, I would argue, that we must vote with our dollars and purchase the wonderful titles by and about people of color as we find them.) So today's pick needs to go on your list for the library or maybe a used book hunt, all right?

And the book in question is Lucille Clifton's Everett Anderson's Christmas Coming. First off we were attracted to this title because it was illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist, who also illustrated one of our favorites from last year, Waiting for Christmas. Gilchrist comes through again with soulful, heartfelt pictures of Everett Anderson, a young African American boy who lives in a large housing complex in the city. I love how Gilchrist captures the urban landscape and imbues it with homey details, just right for the Christmas holiday.

But besides being fun to look at, Everett Anderson is a delightful read as well. This isn't the first title featuring this character -- Clifton has a whole series of Everett Anderson books that are well worth checking out -- but it's a good place to pick up the thread. Clifton structures the book as a countdown from December 20 to 25. Each day Everett has something else special to focus on, building his anticipation as the holiday nears. And when the big day comes, Everett and his family celebrate joyously.

This is a very nuanced portrayal of the complex feelings that can surround the holiday for many people, both children and adults. In amidst the fun parts, like bringing a big Christmas tree up in the building elevator, are the sad bits, like when Everett is missing his father. And that's reality, isn't it? As wonderful as the holiday can be, it's also very difficult at times, and I appreciate that Clifton's is one of the few books that acknowledges that fact.

For a title about family, love, and the growing excitement of the last few days before Christmas, Everett Anderson's Christmas Coming is just right.

Everett Anderson's Christmas Coming by Lucille Clifton, published by Henry Holt
Ages 4-7
Source: Library
Sample: "Everett Anderson / knows he should / be good / but it's the biggest ball, / he had to bounce it on the wall; / and when you climb on top the chair / you see the shelf and what's up there."

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - Under the Christmas Tree by Nikki Grimes

It's Day 6 of our 12 Days of Christmas Picture Books Series. Do you have your Christmas tree up yet? We've had ours up since Thanksgiving Weekend, which is I know crazy early for some people. But we LOVE the tree, love the holiday cheer it brings to the house on these long dark winter days. We not only put our tree up early, we leave it up until after the Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas holiday in early January. And I'm always sad to see the tree go, even when I'm ready to move on with the freshness of a new year.

Today's pick is a gorgeous effort by poet Nikki Grimes and illustrator Kadir Nelson, Under the Christmas Tree. This one is a bit unusual in that it isn't a story per se, but rather a collection of poems about the various aspects of the Christmas season. The subjects here are interesting, not your average fare, which makes them even more intriguing. I love the pieces that personify certain symbols of the Christmas tradition, like the poem that takes the point of view of the angel atop the tree ("She's happiest there / Poised for flight.").

Each poem comes vividly to life through Nelson's signature work, brilliant and bright and sentimental. It's really wonderful to see all these cozy scenes, peopled with brown-skinned characters, the visual representation of Grimes's jewel-like poems. The love and care of family, the spirit of the holiday season, the joy of giving, and the wonder of children are all here, and it's all perfectly captured in word and picture.

Perservere when you're looking for this one, as it's older and not easily available anymore, but definitely worth the hunt. This would be a great choice to share a bit at a time, as a family - there are 23 poems in this collection, so almost one per night of advent, though some are quite short. Of these pieces, some are simple, most are thought-provoking, all are lyrical, and just right for reading around the Christmas tree.

Under the Christmas Tree by Nikki Grimes, published by HarperCollins
All ages
Source: Library
Sample: Special Visitors: "One kissed my forehead / When he thought I was sleeping. / Yes! There are angels."

Monday, December 17, 2012

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - The Wild Christmas Reindeer by Jan Brett

Welcome to Day 5 of our 12 Days of Christmas Picture Books series! Last night was super Christmasy around here, so now we're all in the mood of the holiday in a big way. First we painted our salt dough ornaments - for a not-so-crafty mom these came out pretty darn good, I must say. Then I made some hot chocolate, we snuggled down around the fireplace and watched Rudolph. Such a classic bit of Christmas viewing, straight from my childhood to Sprout's (and it warms my heart to see how much he loves it!).

Afterwards, though, we started talking a bit about reindeer and I realized that Sprout has really never read any books about them. Fortunately I'd already brought home what's probably the best Christmas book about reindeer ever, Jan Brett's The Wild Christmas Reindeer. As with many of Brett's books, this one has a decidedly Scandinavian flair, and since that's a part of the world we don't often read about, it's especially fascinating for Sprout. As expected, Sprout balked a bit at the unfamiliar names of the reindeer - coming on the heels of Rudolph, Brett's version seemed "wrong" -- but he liked the more realistic illustrations quite a lot.

The story is one that kids will identify with, as it captures the often tumultuous process of bringing order to the world of wild things (much like . Teeka is proud to be helping Santa with his reindeer this year, but it's a big job - she's got to find the reindeer, who've been running wild, and tame them enough that they can pull Santas sleigh. Determined to do a good job, Teeka's very firm. Unfortunately her attempt to get everyone in shape results in near disaster. -- and then Teeka's forced to admit that her way of getting things done, by yelling and pushing, isn't at all the best way.

While Sprout was dazzled by the illustrations in this book, the message of Brett's story really hit home for me as a mom. At this busy time of year, with so much to get accomplished, it's easy for me to let my temper run short, especially with my kiddo. But honestly, the best way to achieve my goals is to step back and remember to be patient. And then things will come together, just as they do with Teeka and the reindeer, for a beautiful, not-so-perfect holiday at last.

The Wild Christmas Reindeer by Jan Brett, published by G.P. Putnam's Sons
Ages 3-7
Source: Library
Sample: "Tundra gave her the most trouble. Teeka didn't know that he considered himself the leader and was not used to being bossed around. He liked to stay next to Twilight, but she was separated from him and running near the front. When they got to the barn, Teeka put them in different stalls. Tundra snorted impatiently."

Sunday, December 16, 2012

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - The Miracle of the First Poinsettia by Joanne Oppenheim

**EDITED: Barefoot Books rep Liz Hughes just let us know that she has a few copies of this out-of-print book available! Email her at if you're interested!!**

Today is Day 4 of our 12 Days of Christmas Picture Book countdown. I chose today's book because of a conversation I had with Sprout not long ago. On a visit to the grocery store, he stopped dead in front of a big display of poinsettias. "What are these flowers?" he wanted to know, and I told him. Then he asked "Why are they for Christmas?". Well, that I didn't know the answer to, but told him I'd try to find out. And lo and behold, as with so many other things, the answer is available in a picture book.

Actually there are a few books about this legend, a story from Mexico that is told in various versions but has the same basic origins. Joanne Oppenheim's take, The Miracle of the First Poinsettia, tells of a young girl named Juanita who lives in a village in the mountains. Juanita's family has fallen on some hard times, and there's no money for the usual Christmas festivities and gifts. Juanita manages to come up with some small gifts for her siblings. But when it's time to visit the church, Juanita is embarrassed that she has nothing to give the baby Jesus on this special day. Ashamed, Juanita hides outside the church - but then the stone angel speaks to Juanita, telling her to gather the weeds that grow around the angel's base and carry them into the church. A bewildered Juanita does as she's told, and to her astonishment the weeds have turned into beautiful red flowers, the ones we today know as poinsettias.

Unfortunately this version is out of print (please, Barefoot Books, won't you bring it back??), but it's worth finding from a used bookstore or library, for lots of reasons. For one, the illustrations by Fabian Negrin are just breathtaking. The color palette he employs is really perfect for the tone of the story, evoking the mystery and wonder that surrounds the holiday. I also love that though Juanita's family is poor, there are no noticeable differences between them and the other worshipers - they aren't dressed in rags and they aren't beggars. Oppenheim's use of Spanish throughout the story is another welcome addition. A glossary included at the back gives the meaning of any unfamiliar words, so that the text flows without the distraction of translations. And an author's note discusses the story's origins and the author's personal connection.

This title's a little long for the younger set - best used with preschool and up, I think, which means there are plenty of chances to talk about what happens to Juanita. If you're looking for a book that explores the deeper meaning of the holiday, of why we give gifts and how Christmas is much more than just accumulation of material goods, The Miracle of the First Poinsettia is well worth hunting for.

The Miracle of the First Poinsettia by Joanne Oppenheim, published by Barefoot Books
Ages 3-7
Source: Library
Sample: "From all over the village, people made their way to the church. Juanita followed her parents who carried the little ones with them. But at the doorway Juanita stopped. She did not go in. How could she go into the church with nothing -- not even a candle to place at the altar?"

Saturday, December 15, 2012

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - Mr Willowby's Christmas Tree by Robert Barry

It's Day 3 of our 12 Days of Christmas Picture Books series. Today's pick is an oldie but goodie. I've said it many times, but it bears repeating -- one of the best things about being a mom, hands down, is sharing books with Sprout that I read as a child. I can hardly wait until he's old enough to start reading chapter books with, because there are so many we'll read together. But in the meantime there are oodles of great picture books that I've just been itching to share.

Today's pick is no exception -- Robert Barry's Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree. First published in 1963, I remember encountering this classic when I was in elementary school, and I'm thrilled that it's still available to read with my kiddo. As the story goes, rich old Mr. Willowby, has a gigantic Christmas tree delivered to his home. The tree is magnificent -- but it's too tall for even Mr. Willowby's mammoth parlor. So the top is lopped off by Baxter the butler, who can't bear to throw out the treetop and shares it with Miss Adelaide, another Willowby staff member. Well, that tree is too tall for Miss Adelaide's display space, so she snips off the top and discards it, where it's saved by Timm the gardener. And on and on it goes, until even the tiniest little houseful of mice has a Christmas tree to mark the season, all thanks to Mr. Willowby.

I love the spirit of giving and sharing with others that runs through this story. As each person finds a use for what someone else discards, the tree ends up brightening so many more houses than just Mr. Willowby's. And so it is with the joy of the season -- as we each receive from others, so too should we pass it on, spreading the spirit of the holiday with as many others as our lives can touch.

And just in case you're wondering: Sprout got a huge kick out of this story. The first time we read it, we had to go through after we finished so he could see the treetop get smaller and smaller and smaller. And then on the last page, when the tiny mouse tree is shining out of their hole right next to Mr. Willowby's huge tree, Sprout sighed and said, "That's just right for them." Oh the joy of a classic story so well told!

Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree by Robert Barry, published by Random House Children's Books
Ages 3-7
Source: Library
Sample: "Mr. Willowby's Christmas tree / Came by special delivery. / Full and fresh and glistening green -- / The biggest tree he had ever seen."

Friday, December 14, 2012

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - Happy Christmas Gemma by Sarah Hayes

It's Day 2 of our 12 Days of Christmas Picture Books countdown. On this day, at this moment, our hearts first go out to the families of all those touched by the tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Details about this horrific event are still coming in, but one thing is certain - lives were destroyed today, hearts were broken. Tonight our love is with all those affected by today's senseless act. Tonight we will be sitting a little closer, hugging a little tighter. Tonight, we will pray.

And tonight, we'll read another Christmas title, because when nothing else in this world makes sense, books soothe us.

Tonight we are sharing a book that's unfortunately out of print, but well worth finding from your favorite used bookstore or borrowing from the library. Sarah Hayes's Happy Christmas Gemma was published in 1986, but it has a timeless quality that makes it just as fresh and relevant for children today. Hayes is a British author, so there are some touches that are uniquely English in this one. But what I love most about it is that it really speaks to younger children, those who may perhaps have a baby in the house and who are feeling quite grown-up in comparison. There aren't enough books that fill this niche, and finding a holiday-themed one is even better.

It's Gemma's first Christmas, and her older brother is making sure she's experiencing every bit of the season, in her own way. As he decorates the tree, Gemma undecorates it. As he wraps presents, Gemma tears up labels. And as he waits up for Santa, Gemma falls fast asleep -- good thing her big brother is looking out for her!

This gentle story of sibling love is written in a simple tone, as a young child would tell it. Jan Ormerod's illustrations match the text perfectly, revealing warm scenes of togetherness and celebration. I especially love the expressions on brother's face, suitably indulgent as he watches little Gemma go about her way just as a small baby would. Much of this reminds me of Ezra Jack Keats and other classic depictions of  family life - in particular the spread where baby Gemma sleeps while her brother watches the snow come down reminded both Sprout and I of The Snowy Day, which of course makes us love this one all the more.

For a story that hits just the right note of childlike anticipation and joyous celebration, Happy Christmas Gemma is an excellent find. And when we need to appreciate the closeness of our family, as we do tonight, we're so grateful for books like this.

Happy Christmas Gemma by Sarah Hayes, published by Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books
Ages 0-5
Source: Library
Sample: "We all ate a lot at Christmas dinner. Once Grandma put her elbows on the table, but I didn't say anything. Gemma turned her bowl upside down."

Thursday, December 13, 2012

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - Who Built the Stable? by Ashley Bryan

It's finally here! Our series on 12 Days of Christmas Picture Books resumes for 2012. We've been looking forward to reading holiday books all year, and we're especially excited about some of the finds we've got this time around. I hope you'll join us for each of our daily picks. And don't forget, you can leave us a comment here on the blog or connect via Facebook or Twitter to share your favorite Christmas titles with us.

And so, on to our first Christmas title! Today's pick is one of the most vibrant and visually stunning books you're liable to find on a holiday shelf. Who Built the Stable? by author/illustrator Ashley Bryan is a fresh and accessible look at the nativity story, with a multicultural slant. In Bryan's version, a young shepherd boy builds a stable to shelter his livestock. When Joseph and Mary aren't able to find room at the inn, the boy offers up his stable as a place for them to stay. And so it is that when the babe is born, the shepherd's own manger cradles the child on that first Christmas morning.

Bryan's bio indicates he first began thinking about the title question when he was visiting Africa, and that inspiration shines through in his gorgeous paintings. Every page bursts with life, and the more you look the more there is to see -- multicolor stars twinkling in a swirling sky, mud huts peeking out from a hilltop. The animals are more than background filler here, just as colorful as everything else in Bryan's landscape. And as with all his books, Bryan's text is stellar here too, a thought-provoking piece of poetry that even the youngest children will appreciate.

This vivid take on the nativity is one that begs to be read and re-read, a perfect frame for holiday conversations. Whether you're looking for a new title to share with your own kids or a gift idea for someone on your list, Who Built the Stable? is a memorable addition to the Christmas story canon.

Who Built the Stable? by Ashley Bryan, published by Simon & Schuster
All ages
Source: Library
Sample: "The little shepherd sheltered them. / For one night he saw a star, / And -- Lo! -- it grew in brightness, / Approaching from afar."

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Picture Book Review - Lemonade in Winter by Emily Jenkins

Ooooh boy, does it seem like winter around here! In the Northwest that's more about rain and gray days than it is about snow, though Sprout is convinced it's going to snow ON CHRISTMAS and he will be super disappointed if (when?) it doesn't. And since he's been a little snow-obsessed these past few weeks we've been reading a bunch of books about wintry climes. Think penguins, polar bears, sledding, snowmen and of course our favorite Ezra Jack Keats classic (which honestly we just read all year round).

The other thing that's a running theme in the Kinser household these days is counting. Sprout is counting everything of late, with relish, and can actually get up to thirty, more or less accurately. Watching him learn these building blocks of knowledge is so exciting for us -- it's like having a front row seat to a pretty amazing discovery. The thrill for him in understanding how the numbers come together, and recognizing a pattern, is just palpable, and I love seeing this.

So with these two obsessions in mind, I was pretty thrilled to bring home today's pick, Lemonade in Winter: A Book About Two Kids Counting Money. This quirky picture book is written by Emily Jenkins, who happens to be the author of one of our big favorites from earlier this year, What Happens on Wednesdays. And it's illustrated by G. Brian Karas, who we also adore -- so, win-win right from the get-go.

Beyond that, how can you not be charmed by a book whose premise is siblings who, bored one very cold and snowy day, decide to have a lemonade stand. Yup, a for-real, on-the-corner, ice-cubes-and-all lemonade stand. Though Mom and Dad try to dissuade Pauline and John-John, the kids are determined. And so they count out money for supplies, mix up their product and hit the streets -- in parkas and earmuffs, no less -- chanting their slogan: "Lemon lemon lime, lemon LIMEade! / Lemon lemon lime, lemon LEMONade!" (Catchy, no?)

This tale of young entrepreneurship is not only fun, it's a great learning experience to boot. (Just skip over the subtitle when you read it to your kiddos -- without it the "learning part" will just sneak right up on them!) At every turn, Pauline is educating her young brother about counting money, how many coins make up a dollar and how they can make back their initial supply investment. You don't see that kind of thing too often in a book that is this accessible to the younger crowd, so kudos to Jenkins for including it. And then there's the perserverance both kiddos show. When business is slow, as you might expet it to be when you're selling cold drinks in wintertime, the siblings come up with creative ways to boost their sales. Plus -- huge bonus in my book -- there's a truly multicultural cast of characters here, which we see as we meet the various members of Pauline and John-John's neighborhood. Love that!

In the end, is Pauline and John-John's project a success? Well, you'll have to be the judge of that. But what I can tell you, with certainty, is that this is a picture book that's not only whimsical and bursting with community, but that's solidly based in math and counting skills as well. And in whatever season you read this amusing story, you're bound to get your money's worth!

Lemonade in Winter by Emily Jenkins, published by Schwartz and Wade
Ages: 3-6
Source: Library
Sample: "'Maybe nobody is on the street,' says Pauline, after a bit. 'Maybe nobody will want cold drinks.' / 'I'm on the street,' says John-John. 'I want them.' He grabs a cup of limeade. / 'Don't drink too much,' Pauline warns. 'It's fifty cents a cup.'"

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Guest Post - The Barefoot Books Holiday Gift Guide!

I asked Liz Hughes, a Barefoot Books Ambassador, to join us today with a few gift suggestions from the Barefoot Books catalog. We love Barefoot, as much for the excellent quality of their materials as for their multicultural themes and multiracial cast of characters. This gift guide is jam-packed with wonderful books and CDs. If you're looking for some gift ideas for growing your little global citizen, look no further!

Thank you so much to Mary for inviting me here to her place for a guest post!  I am so honored to share with you some of my favorite Barefoot Books as holiday gift suggestions for the children in your lives.  Books are the perfect gift for children of all ages, in my humble opinion.  Please feel free to contact me ( if you have any questions about specific books or Barefoot Books in general.   

Make sure to read all the way to the end of this post for a special discount code you can use on your order, and for information about how your purchase can help children in Ethiopia gain access to books and literacy too. 

And now, on to the Barefoot Books holiday gift guide! 


Alison Jay illustrates two of my favorite books in this category, I Took the Moon for a Walk and Listen, Listen.  Her illustrations have such a dreamy, old world feel to them - so very distinctive!

A little boy goes for a nighttime walk with the moon and discovers the world at night.  Includes end notes about the phases of the moon and nocturnal plants and animals, so this book will have a long life on your child’s book shelf - especially if you get the sturdy large format board book version.

Birds chirp, leaves crunch, fires crackle and seagulls squawk - this book is fun to read and fun to listen to, great for building vocabulary!  There’s also a fun seek-and-find in the back, with a page for each season.   

Clare Beaton is another of my favorite Barefoot illustrators, her fabric creations are just simply amazing.  Her books include How Big is a Pig, How Loud is a Lion, Hidden Hippo, Elusive Moose, Secret Seahorse, There’s a Cow in the Cabbage Patch...the one I’ve chosen to highlight here is Who are You, Baby Kangaroo?

A little puppy goes around the world trying to discover what a baby kangaroo is called, and along the way learns the names for all sorts of baby animals.  So adorable!


The most popular and best-selling type of books in this category are Barefoot’s singalong books.  When my daughter was a little younger, singalong books were this single mom’s best friend - I could pop a few discs into the CD player, sit my little one down at the table with a stack of books, and get dinner ready for us while she alternated between dancing around the kitchen to the music and “reading” along in the book as the song played.  If you have a three- or four-year-old in your house, I highly recommend singalong books! 
Here are a few of my favorites:

Four children - from Mali, Europe, China, and India - go through their morning routines to the tune of this classic song.   

Another traditional song with a multicultural twist - clap your hands, stomp your feet, pat your head with a happy bunch of kids from all around the world!

Yet another classic, this one is great for learning to count from one to ten and also includes notes in the back about musical instrument families.

The Animal Boogie is one of Barefoot’s all-time best selling books, it is tremendous fun!  And the illustrations really highlight Barefoot’s commitment to diversity - not only do the kids in this book have all different skin colors, there’s also a little girl in a wheelchair who shows us how to flap like a bird.

What can you make with a line, a square, a circle, and a triangle?  Find out in this catchy tune by children’s singer SteveSongs! 

Age 4 to 7:

My daughter is currently right in the middle of this age group, so I am very well informed about the books in this category! 

Let’s start with Barefoot’s Travel the World books...Laurie Krebs is a retired first-grade teacher who takes trips around the world with her husband and then comes home to write gorgeous children’s books about the places they visit.  Off We Go to Mexico, We’re Sailing to Galapagos, We’re Roaming in the Rainforest, Up and Down the Andes, and We’re Sailing Down the Nile are some of her books, but my favorites are We’re Riding on a Caravan and We All Went on Safari.
We’re Riding on a Caravan

A family spends a year traveling by caravan along China’s ancient silk road, bringing their goods to sell at the famous market in Kashgar.  This book is one of my favorites because of the fun rhyming text and the stunning illustrations, and the extensive end notes with a map, the story of silk, information about all the places the caravan visits, and more make this another book that will be relevant to your child for years and years.


Learn to count from one to ten in English and Swahili as you follow a Masai family through the grasslands of Tanzania.  This one also has amazing end notes including information about African animals and the Masai people, as well as a map and more.

Barefoot donates a portion of the proceeds from the sale of each book to the African Wildlife Foundation, to aid in their wildlife conservation and community building efforts in Tanzania.

Also in this category are Barefoot’s version of traditional tales, such as Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood, as well as new stories that are sure to become classics.

Niamh Sharkey - named Irish Children’s Laureate earlier this year - illustrates this new version of the old tale and gives it her own quirky treatment.  I love how she imagines the funny little man wearing a big, baggy jacket with big, baggy pockets who trades Jack six magic beans for Daisy the cow!  This book also includes a CD with the story narrated by Richard Hope.

Lola feels plain and ordinary compared to her beautiful and talented older sister Clementina, until she discovers her mother’s old flamenco shoes in the closet and convinces her father to give her secret lessons.  She surprises and delights everyone when she dances the flamenco - in her polka dot dress and special new shoes - for her mother’s birthday party!  The book comes with a story CD narrated by the Amadour family, who really bring all of the characters to life.  Lola’s Fandango was a 2012 Ezra Jack Keats honorable mention for best author and illustrator.

Finally, in this category is my very favorite Barefoot illustrator - Miriam Latimer.  Mary was kind enough to review Latimer’s Shopping with Dad a few months ago, and I promise you that all of her books are worth a look.  Her illustrations are colorful and spunky and fun, and each of her main characters has a small creature that appears on every page with him or her - see if your little one can figure out the creature in each book and then find it on every page!  In addition to Shopping with Dad, Latimer has illustrated The Prince’s Bedtime, Emily’s Tiger, Shrinking Sam, and two books featuring the brave and strong Ruby - Ruby’s School Walk and Ruby’s Sleepover.


Ruby finds the courage to face crocodiles, tigers, witches, and ghosts, on her walk to school for her first day - and then her mom helps her find the courage to face the rest of the day!

Ages 8+: 

Barefoot has some great story collections for older kids, most of which come with story CDs.  Two that I recommend are The Barefoot Book of Dance Stories and The Barefoot Book of Pirates.


Eight stories about dance from around the world, including The West Indies, ancient Egypt, Germany, Japan, Mali, and the Czech Republic.  This hardcover book has gorgeous illustrations, the stories are wonderfully narrated by the British actress Juliet Stevenson, and the end notes include information about how each type of dance is done.  A beautiful book for any dance lover, adult or child!


Seven pirate stories from around the world, including Japan, Morocco, Scotland, and Germany.  My favorite pirate in this book is Grace O’Malley from Ireland - girls can be pirates too, you know!

Chapter Books for Independent Readers:

For children who are able to read on their own, Barefoot has a great selection of chapter books - from easy readers for kids just starting to read, through advanced books for kids who are strong readers (or even adults!).  

This story from Zambia is the first book in Barefoot’s Animal Stories series, easy chapter  books for early readers.  When a drought comes, which animal can go to the mountain and come back with the name of the magical tree that will provide all of them with their favorite fruit?  The Tortoise’s Gift was just named the Best Early Reader on the list of 10 Best Children’s Books of 2012 from Parents Magazine.

This story from Italy is the first book in Barefoot’s Monster Stories series, another easy chapter book for early readers.  When the king gets sick, Pirolo the gardner sets off to retrieve the only thing that will cure the king - a feather from the back of the ogre who eats boys and girls for his supper.  When he arrives at the ogre’s castle, he gets some help from a clever princess and they all live happily ever after - of course!


This chapter book for confident readers is a new version of the classic fairy tale, with breath-taking illustrations from the French artist Miss Clara.  Miss Clara builds tiny three-dimensional figures of all the characters in the books she illustrates, then photographs them and uses Photoshop to create simply stunning images. 

Robin Hood is a chapter book for advanced readers, though my five-year-old and I both enjoyed reading this one together at bedtime, one chapter at a time.  There are nine stories here about Robin Hood’s adventures, including all the familiar merry men in his band of outlaws - Little John, Friar Tuck, Will Scarlet - as well as the Sheriff of Nottingham, Sir Guy of Gisborne, and a strong Maid Marian who is more than capable of taking care of herself!  The stories are based on the original Robin Hood ballads and have an authentic Middle Ages feel to them.


Finally, Barefoot’s only non-fiction book is one that I believe should be on every child’s bookshelf -- the Barefoot Books World Atlas.

Younger children will be fascinated by the beautiful artwork, with tiny icons depicting interesting and important places in every country and continent, and in the oceans; older children can learn so much from the detailed information on every page, and Barefoot packs even more information into the book with flaps that open up and pages that fold out and expand.  And there’s a poster-sized map of the world tucked inside the back cover, worthy of being framed and hung in your child’s room as a gorgeous piece of art! 


The World Atlas is part of Barefoot’s Travel the World section, and you can find more books in this category at my Barefoot Books storefront.


As you can see, Barefoot Books has something for every child on your holiday shopping list!  Place your orders before 11AM Eastern time on Friday December 14th in order to guarantee delivery before Christmas with regular UPS shipping - which is free if you order $60 or more; orders placed after the 14th can still arrive by Christmas with additional shipping charges for fast delivery.

Please feel free to use the discount code TWENTY12 to save 20% on your entire order; you can use this code for one order before the end of the year.

If you would like your purchase to help support the important work of Ethiopia Reads, which brings literacy and libraries to children in Ethiopia, please go to my Barefoot Marketplace,

scroll down to My Events and click Support This Event under the Open Hearts Big Dreams fundraiser.  I will donate 20% of your purchase to Ethiopia Reads through this fundraising event in Seattle; purchase now through December 15th to participate in the fundraiser.
Thank you once again to Mary for inviting me here to share some of my favorite Barefoot Books with you.  Happy holidays to everyone!